Centrality, Power, Sovereignty

We can model all centrality on the originary scene, where all participants constitute themselves as members by representing and imitating the desired and (therefore) forbidden central object. On this scene there is what I have been calling “centered ordinality,” which means that one member hesitates and successfully communicates that hesitation first, followed by another and eventually the entire group (with the last few perhaps compelled more by the force of numbers than of deferral). Nevertheless, while there is differential proximity to the center, nobody occupies the center.

But such differential proximity means that someone, eventually, will come to occupy the center. All it would take is some renewal of the mimetic crisis endemic to humanity which cannot be quashed by the normal signs and rituals, and requires mediation by an individual whose mediation is trusted because it has been applied in less critical situations. This occupation will, eventually, become permanent, and when that happens, all forms of centrality are re-ordered: mimetic rivalry takes on the added dimension of a testing of the occupant of the center, and the invocation of his authority in deferring conflicts constitutes what are now lower levels of social life. We can call this kind of occupying centrality “power.”

Centrality can now be modeled on power, and new power centers can emerge. New power centers will first of all seek to accommodate themselves to central power, while central power must now find ways to differentiate itself from these orbiting centers. By enhancing its own sacrality, which is to say multi-layered centrality (mediating not just between members of the community by between the community and other communities, the community and the gods, the community and the universe), the central power gives the “orbitals” a choice: contribute to this centralization by conferring more loyalty, creating more layers between the central power and potential rivals, and refining the “mission” of the central power along with their own; or, defend their own centers while waiting for opportunities to supplant the ruler.

As long as the first option is selected, there will not be much need to formalize the supremacy of the central power—it will be beneficial for all involved to emphasize the cooperation between the ruler, the priests, the soldiers, the merchants, etc. It is under such conditions that the work of elaborating a moral culture can be best undertaken: all the different kinds of goods and virtues, in their orders and institutional forms, can be knit tightly together. But it seems that a time will come when the second option is chosen, and the ruler, whether the traditionally anointed one or his usurper, will have to assert sovereignty, a new mode of centrality that claims and enforces the right to be the judge of last resort in all disputes involving lower centers of power.

Sovereignty can be de-moralizing, as all other institutions are now directly subordinated to the needs of sovereign power. The sovereign must judge disputes between different power centers, or disputes within power centers that those centers have been unable to resolve themselves, but the sovereign will also be sorely tempted to use this role to play different power centers off against each other to preserve his own supremacy. In so doing, the sovereign will give credibility to de-centering discourses that will eventually endanger his own rule. Moreover, the sovereign judges, but how? According to what standard of right or equity? It’s hard to see how the sovereign could generate, simply out of an insistence on his own sovereignty, any standards appropriate to the new conditions: rather, he will apply standards immanent in the power centers themselves, with an eye towards preserving those power centers in their properly subordinate form and calibrating the relations between power centers. But this just keeps the resentments simmering, leaving all holders of power to prepare for the nearest chance to force a recalibration. The failures of this form of rule will give further credibility to decentering discourses and power centers.

The only way to provide sovereignty with an appropriate form of justice is to give discursive articulation to the difference between power applied so as to preserve the social order and power applied in obedience to a power greater than the sovereign. There are dangers here. The identification of some power greater than the sovereign will be made possible by some synthesis of the de-centering discourses that will have been circulating. Some judgments made by the sovereign have been “better” than others, and those better judgments can be used to judge the worse ones. Only a de-centering discourse will be able to insist on this distinction, which can be formulated in terms of judgments which have led to a more “perfect” peace as opposed to those which failed, or in terms of judgments that reference a more ancient and revered law as opposed to those perceived to have departed from it. One event (an event that is then, via myths and legends, further “purified” and “elevated”) is transformed into a model for other events. It then becomes possible to say that a particular judgment may have worked perfectly well on its own terms—it kept the peace and left all sides satisfied—but nevertheless compromised the real norms of judgment. This kind of questioning will lead to the identification of victims of and sacrifices to these compromises: in general, the judgment worked, but in the specifics we can identify those who didn’t receive a true judgment. This involves a lowering of the threshold of significance. The danger is that this process lays the groundwork for judging the sovereign in terms of a higher power. But the opportunity is for sovereignty to clarify its own centrality by instituting justice in accord with this “higher power” and “true law,” and by tracing his own lineage to the founding event.

The way to do this is to command the construction of all sites of power in accord with that same “elevated” event. But the answerability of all these institutions to the sovereign leaves the question of the sovereign’s own accountability to the elevated event and higher law it embodies unanswered. What makes an event subject to “elevation” is that it iterates, repeats under new conditions, the originary scene, which is to say a mode of centrality prior to power. Successful sovereignty and all the institutions of power can “activate” this mode of centrality. The most basic form taken by pre-power centrality is that of the “team.” If we analyze the “team” in terms of an absolutist ontology, we can identify a mode of leadership that does not rise to the threshold of “power” because the norms and project of the team are so embedded in its practices that whoever leads is only marginally less exchangeable than the others, and can lead with little more than gestures. The team requires the support of the institution and ultimately the sovereign, which set its broader goals and can dismantle it at will, but is set free by the institution in order to embark on some inquiry and/or practice the results of which can’t be determined in advance.

The more secure the sovereign, the more comfortable he will be relying on teams. A surprising example comes from the Twitter feed of Thomas Wictor, a military historian (among other things), who claims that the Saudi government, on the model of the WWI German military, has transformed its entire armed forces in special forces, i.e., teams made up of highly motivated and multi-competent individuals set forth to solve some problem or advance some objective. Another example I just came across is from Jack Cashill’s column on the American Thinker website November 30, 2017, where he discusses Charles Campisi’s book, Blue on Blue, on the systematic use of sting operations to reform the corrupt NYPD. Stings, like undercover operations more generally, involve extensive reliance on teams and individuals closely tied to and trained within team settings. So, let’s say that any contemporary recovery of sovereignty will tend more and more towards teamwork; perhaps, even, we should imagine an asymptotic movement towards everyone being “teamed up.” Think about the kinds of individuals required for sting, undercover and special forces activities—they must be able to remember exactly what they are doing and why in the middle of pretending to be someone completely opposite, the type of person they are trying to stop. They must maintain several lines of communication simultaneously—one, to those amongst whom they must blend, and one to other members of the team and another back to the institutional home. If investing in the institutional forms needed to create more people like this is what we mean by “individualism,” then as an absolutist I’m in favor of it. (And this is not even to address the necessity of small, independent teams in scientific and technological innovation.)

As the clarification of sovereignty and the teaming up of society proceed hand in hand, the accountability of the sovereign to the higher law or elevated event becomes less and less of problem because the regime itself is breeding people both loyal and incorruptible. At a certain point we would all be “stinging” each other, in the sense that each and every member of an institution would be ready to identify and curtail abuses of the institution’s mandate. Yes, for some this will evoke the informant of the totalitarian state, but why not refer, more prosaically, to the kind of “whistleblower” we are all expected to be if the institution we are in is engaged in illegal practices? Or, for the matter, the routine and often ludicrous performance reviews employees undergo at pretty much any institution? The stingers could represent the institution and sovereign in such a way as to render the entire legal and penal system virtually obsolete. If you’re incapable of joining a team engaged in some kind of assessment, i.e., if you can’t demonstrate a basic understanding of the norms and their enforcement, you don’t have a place in the institution. Perhaps you can join a laxer institution—certainly, they won’t all operate with the same rigor. Teams will be assigned to monitor institutions less able to effectively monitor themselves, while those less effective institutions will still be expected to act on the information and recommendations provided by the external monitors. Bad behavior will be stemmed at its roots. And if one team fails there will always be another ready to self-form and seek appointment by the relevant institution. A kind of iteration of the originary scene thereby becomes part of the sovereign order, which can now test itself uncompromisingly against the “higher” without being threatened.

Leave a Reply